12/9/10

In a recent “My Word” piece, Mr. Uri Driscoll expressed a wide range of opinions and observations regarding the current management practices directed at recovering the threatened Snowy Plover. In his essay, he focused especially on dune restoration because he sees it as unnecessarily costly, damaging to wetland habitats, and altering the coastal dunes that protect the county's infrastructure. His rambling essay was filled with phantom opinions attributed to experts, disarticulated bits of information, and poorly explained “facts” derived from a cursory understanding of the ecology of coastal dunes and plovers in particular. We wish to clarify and explain the real situation involving the status of the plover. In doing so, we'll rely on scientific evidence collected and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals rather than presenting anecdotes derived from hearsay.

The snowy plover is widely distributed in North America, where an estimated total population of 1,747 breeds along the West Coast. It is this population, breeding within 50 miles of the Pacific, that was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1993. The listed population continues to be protected because numbers remain below that necessary for recovery under the ESA. Over the past 10 years, plover numbers in Northern California have varied between 19 and 71, which is well below the number (150 locally and 3,000 along that Pacific coast) that the USFWS determined necessary for the population to be recovered.

Ecologists understand that two important things influence annual variation in the size of animal populations: adult survival and reproduction. Simply put, a population must reproduce enough young to replace those adults that die each year for the population to remain stable. When reproduction exceeds mortality, the population grows; when it does not, numbers decline. Recent evidence shows conclusively that the population of plovers in our region routinely has such poor reproduction that numbers have declined to a low of 19 adults in 2009; the number increased to 31 this past summer. The only thing that sustains the local population is immigration of plovers from elsewhere along the Pacific coast.

In the species' recovery plan, finalized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007, biologists identified three main factors that contribute to poor reproductive success of plovers. They are: 1) predation of eggs and young by mammals and birds, especially the common raven; 2) human-caused mortality of eggs and chicks stemming from encounters with people, dogs and vehicles, as well as the subtle effects of disturbance to breeding birds; and 3) degradation and loss of breeding habitat, in large part due to the spread of introduced plant species, principally European beach grass.

In our area, predators are the leading cause of poor reproduction, based on direct and indirect evidence. For example, we have shown that plover eggs do not survive long on Clam Beach and Mad River Beach where ravens are particularly abundant (probably because garbage left by humans attracts scavenging ravens). Recently, we used video cameras to monitor 25 plover nests on Clam Beach because we wanted to know the cause of nest failure with greater certainty. Our recordings showed that ravens were the culprits at 70 percent of the 20 nests where eggs disappeared. We also showed that humans caused some failures because they took eggs from nests, their dogs trampled eggs, or vehicles ran over them. So, humans have played a direct and indirect role (via garbage) in contributing to reproductive failure of plovers on Clam Beach. Early on, we attempted to increase plover reproduction by building cages around nests to keep ravens from eating plover eggs. But ravens and other predators learned what was inside and ate newly hatched chicks and adults as they left the cages, which caused us to end this practice. We currently do very little to manage predators, which pose a serious challenge to the species' recovery.

Each year, humans cause some nest failures, as shown by cameras. We have tried to ameliorate these negative effects. For instance, our survey data suggested that plovers favored the area between the two parking lots on Clam Beach, an area where human activity is also often high. Accordingly, in each of the past six years we have worked with Humboldt County staff to erect a temporary fence in this area to create a refuge for breeding plovers in an effort to limit direct mortality of eggs and chicks and minimize disturbance from humans during the sensitive period when plovers breed. This approach has been successful elsewhere along the Pacific coast. When we compared the first three years without the fence with the subsequent four years with protection, we found that plover chicks hatched inside the fenced area often restricted their movements to that area, and young reared inside the fence were more likely to reach maturity. This last point is debatable because the number of young reared on the south end of Clam Beach, where there was no fence, also increased. But the south stretch of beach also has less human activity than the north end of the beach. Unfortunately, over the past several years ravens have eaten nearly all plover eggs on Clam Beach so that few young hatch. This limits our ability to evaluate the fenced area for reducing direct impacts from humans, and it underscores the overarching importance of raven predation on reproduction for this species.

Habitat loss was a third factor identified as contributing to the plover's decline. In Humboldt County, a main cause of habitat loss is a reduction in open, sparsely vegetated beaches favored by breeding plovers. European beach grass is an invasive species that has spread rapidly to cover dunes in dense stands. Efforts to restore habitats have removed beach grass (and a few other species) with the aim of restoring the native dune biota, of which plovers are one species. Plovers preferentially nest in the open and rely on early detection of ravens (and humans) to evade predation of eggs. Thus, it is not uncommon to observe plovers nesting in newly restored areas. This happened on Clam Beach in 2008, after Caltrans removed beach grass from a large area below the Vista Point. In response, plovers initiated almost half of the 25 nests on Clam Beach that year in this restored area. This past summer, a similar pattern unfolded within the newly restored habitats managed by California State Parks on Little River State Beach. Unfortunately, predators readily consumed eggs in all but one of these nests. So restoration does attract breeding plovers, but these restored habitats will require additional management of predators and people to ensure that nests and chicks survive well.

In his recent essay, Driscoll attempts to surprise the reader with an ironic suggestion that removing invasive non-native beach grass won't help the plover recover. What he failed to recognize is that we are way ahead of him. We already know that removing beach grass -- by itself -- will not safeguard the threatened snowy plover. That's only a third of the story. Biological research and the USFWS's recovery plan, published more than three years ago, clearly identified three inter-related factors: predators such as ravens, human-caused egg and chick losses, and the loss of breeding habitat from invasive non-native beach grass and other causes. Those factors operate together, so plover conservation must address all three. Enjoying coastal habitats, dunes, and the species that have lived amongst them for millennia will require that people recognize our role as simply one piece of this dynamic ecosystem. We urge everyone to behave in ways that honor the other pieces. Even if one of those pieces is as small, and as beautiful, as a plover.

 

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12/4/10

San Diego city officials are studying whether phasing out Styrofoam and plastic water bottles at City Hall and city events could lead to cost savings while improving water quality and protecting the coast.

The Mayor’s Office will work with nonprofit group San Diego Coastkeeper to quantify the city’s use of such products and offer alternatives such as urging workers to drink city water and bring reusable cups.

Styrofoam and plastic are the most common debris found at San Diego County beaches following cigarette butts, conservationists say. The petroleum-based products take a long time to biodegrade and pose environmental threats. Styrofoam products, such as egg cartons and packaging foam peanuts, are not included in the city’s recycling program.

Efforts to reduce plastic and Styrofoam have spread throughout California in recent years, with 41 municipalities in the state enacting related measures, according to Coastkeeper. They include Berkeley, San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.

 

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11/29/10

It might be easier to clean up if the lawn chairs, water bottles and fishing nets all clumped together like a giant island of trash.

But the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is more scattered, which makes things challenging for the crew of a Richmond-based ship trying to find ways to clean up the mess.

"When you are out there you expect to see a sign: 'Welcome to the Gyre,'" said Nicholas Mallos, a marine debris scientist who sought to dispel popular notions of what the garbage patch is.

"It's not a floating island of trash. It's not the size of Texas," said Mallos, who works for the environmental group Ocean Conservancy. Though not always as obvious as a 3-ton "ghost net" or a floating mass of garbage -- which are out there, here and there -- the garbage collecting in the oceans is a serious global problem.

The trash, mostly plastics, collects in a vast region in the middle of the Pacific where four currents create a gyre, or vast vortex. Containers, nets and tiny bits of plastic are all swirling about, hundreds of miles offshore.

The crew of the Kaisei, a 151-foot brigantine tall ship that spends about half its time docked in Richmond, sailed for a few weeks in August in the garbage patch, also known as the North Pacific Gyre. It was the second voyage for Project Kaisei, which has a goal of eventually cleaning up the trash.

Speaking to reporters and others after their latest voyage this month, Mallos and Project Kaisei co-founder Mary Crowley described what they saw and their plans to try to clean up the garbage.

The trip confirmed that computer models are accurately predicting where the garbage is so that cleanup barges and ships can more effectively conduct large-scale trash removal.

In the few weeks the Kaisei was in the gyre, the crew collected thousands of pieces of plastic garbage and saw tiny bits of plastic entering the food web through small marine animals.

They picked up lids, containers, toothbrushes and car fenders.

Mallos said the problem is not readily apparent until one gets 500 miles off the coast of California, where tiny bits of plastic shimmer near the water's surface. The concentrations are heavier about 1,200 to 1,500 miles offshore, halfway to Hawaii, with discarded, rolled up fishing nets, sometimes adorned with other trash and trapped wildlife.

Crowley said the garbage extends to about 500 miles off the coast of Asia.

But the garbage still is not a massive island. It is more like an archipelago, Mallos said.

The plastics have been accumulating for decades and are extremely slow to degrade, though they do break into smaller bits that can be mistaken for food by small animals.

The trash mostly comes from shores both east and west but is also discarded by ships. In the gyre are lawn chairs that may have been left on a beach somewhere, containers washed from a road or tossed into a creek. And it has come from California, Asia and other regions along the Pacific's coasts.

Next year, Crowley and her partners plan to test ways to safely remove plastic trash off the coasts of San Diego and Seattle.

 

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11/26/10

Arcata and a handful of local businesses are ready to say goodbye to the single-use plastic bag, and they are hoping to spread the enthusiasm to help others do the same.

The Arcata City Council voted last week to move forward with creating a ban on single-use plastic bags to reduce impacts on the ocean and marine life as well as reduce litter and greenhouse gas emissions. The effort will likely require an Environmental Impact Report, but such a report would be useful in identifying what kind of ban would be most effective, said Karen Diemer, deputy director of Arcata Environmental Services.

The council directed staff to look into a plastic bag ban and any alternatives, which could include requiring businesses to charge for paper bags, banning produce and bulk bin bags as well as carry-out bags, or other options, Diemer said.

”Any single-use bag is going to have a higher environmental impact than a reusable bag,” she said.

A Master Environmental Assessment was put together in March for Green Cities California, a coalition of 12 governments working to implement groundbreaking environmental policies, as a way to provide other municipalities with information on plastic and other single-use bags. It does not address region-specific impacts but can provide a baseline for municipalities, according to the assessment.

The master assessment estimates that nearly 20 billion single-use plastic bags are used annually in California, and most end up in the landfill or as litter. Single-use paper bags are recycled at a much higher rate, but over its lifetime a paper bag has a larger greenhouse gas emission.

Although on a 1-1 ratio paper bags result in higher emissions, more plastic bags are often used to do the same job as one paper bag, so comparing them as such is a bit of a misnomer, Diemer said.

Single-use biodegradable bags appear more eco-friendly, but they cause more emissions during manufacturing and may only degrade under composting conditions, according to the assessment.

Reusable bags were determined by the assessment to have the least amount of impact, even if only reused a few times. Such bags are available in many stores in Arcata, and if a plastic bag ban was implemented, the availability might increase, Diemer said.

”It seems to me a majority of stores in Arcata have a low-cost option for reusable bags,” Diemer said.

At least one local business is moving on its own to reduce the use of single-use bags. Both locations of the North Coast Co-op will begin charging 10 cents per paper bag starting Jan. 1. Member Linkages Director Melanie Bettenhausen said the Co-op's goal is to reduce the amount of paper bags used by 80 percent in time for Earth Day on April 22. The charge for the bags is at cost, meaning the store won't make a profit.

”This is really an incentive to reduce our impact on the planet,” she said.

The Co-op has never offered single-use plastic bags.

Having a small charge for the bags will hopefully be the extra encouragement people need to remember their reusable bags, which shoppers often forget to bring inside. Bettenhausen said that's why the Co-op put up the banner outside the store that asks, “Did you remember your bags?”

Customers bring in a variety of reusable bags: homemade, store-bought or even Co-op canvas bags from a decade ago, she said.

The Co-op also plans to have reusable bag giveaways when it implements the new policy, and sell the thin reusable bags at cost to encourage customers to buy them. Bettenhausen said they also hope that when the store begins charging for paper bags, it will open the door for other grocery stores to do so as well.

Diemer was also hopeful others would follow the Co-op's example.

”I would love to see the Co-op take a leadership role to show how it can be done,” Diemer said.

The city council has also discussed potentially banning single-use plastic bags for bulk or produce items. Arcata Vice Mayor Susan Ornelas said her preference would be to include in an ordinance a two-step process that first bans outgoing single-use plastic bags, and then later bans the produce and bulk item plastic bags.

She said the city and the council should embark on an educational campaign if such a ban is passed to inform people of how plastic bags create litter problems and harm marine life, and how reusable bags are more sustainable.

”I think it's a doable thing,” Ornelas said.

Bettenhausen said the Co-op board had considered also eliminating the plastic bulk and produce bags, but they haven't identified a cost-effective way to do that yet. The Co-op used to provide recyclable plastic bags, but since the recycling center no longer takes them, the store stopped providing those kinds of bags.

If the paper bag policy is a success, there may be enough energy from members to move forward with eliminating those plastic bags as well, Bettenhausen said.

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11/17/10

The California Department of Transportation was ordered Tuesday to halt what federal regulators said were widespread discharges of silt and pollution from road construction and maintenance sites into rivers and streams.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Caltrans a year to upgrade its statewide storm water management program and control discharges or face penalties under the Clean Water Act.

"The protection of our waters is one of EPA's major priorities, and limiting the damage done by storm water from construction sites is a key goal," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator. "We urge Caltrans to join us in the fight for improved water quality by controlling its storm water runoff."

A series of field audits by EPA regulators documented storm water discharges of metals, sediment, oil, grease, pesticides and trash from numerous Caltrans construction sites along the 50,000 miles of highway and freeway that it operates in California, said Greg Gholson, an enforcement officer and inspector for the EPA.

Among the findings, Gholson said, were lax management and a lack of control of the sediment from hillsides dug up during construction activities.

"We found several instances where controls were not installed properly or were not installed at all," said Gholson, who explained that fiber mats sometimes were not put down to control runoff and erosion.

Inspections also found instances in which oil and grease were leaking from construction equipment.

"At any given construction site the problems may not have required enforcement, but taken as a whole the agency was very concerned with the deficiencies that were seen," Gholson said.

The agency ordered Caltrans to improve its management and procedures and fix the problems by Dec. 31, 2011.

Pollution from storm water runoff has been blamed for damaging water quality in San Francisco Bay, the ocean and in lakes, rivers and creeks throughout the state.



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